gall and gumption

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Beware the Cummerbund!

A Jamaican childhood, when I was growing up, was still in many senses a British childhood. The books we read were more likely to be English, not American literature. My late uncle kept stacks of World War II comic books around; small, square, with black-and-white ink drawings that were crude and gave the impression of having been done in a great hurry. New ones appeared in the drugstore downstairs from his office every week and he bought them as soon as they arrived, though he gave no sign of ever having read them. I think they might have been comics he wanted as a little boy but couldn't afford, and now that he was a doctor and could buy whatever he liked, he bought the comic books. Usually on the cover there was an explosion or a plane crashing. They were unbelievably tedious but when we had read all the cartoons in the latest batch of Playboy magazines that he left in a heap among his old medical textbooks (the latter were reference material for nightmares) in the study, then we would turn to these old British war comics and slog through them.

American books and comic books came later – Nancy Drew, Tom Swift; and comic books; we started with Casper the Friendly Ghost and worked our way through The Swamp Thing and Mad Magazine. By the time Mad Magazine was becoming indispensable the Americanization of our literature was all but complete -- or would have been had my mother not moved to England when I was thirteen. (It is odd, when I think of it, that my parents never minded us reading Playboy. It was kind of like the Sunday funnies: they'd flip through it and then pass it on to us. Remember, it had Gahan Wilson cartoons!) But while we devoured these Americam productions we would have agreed with our parents that literature -- books that you read to become civilized and intelligent, even if you happened to enjoy them and even if they were a bit silly – was English.

It was such a curious hodge-podge. My geography book in elementary school had a series of profiles of children living all over the world; the little Dutch girl with her cheese-making family, etc., and I remember my mother reading it out loud to us and laughing her head off at the story of the little African boy who lived in the forests with his mother and father and his goats and his yams, and ran around nearly naked and lived in some sort of dome-shaped hut. The little boy’s name was “Bombo” which also happens to be a Jamaican street obscenity, but it wasn’t so much that that amused her. It was that in 1968 we were still being taught this silly image of African life, not all that different from what she had learned. Anyway it sort of killed my interest in geography. In high school in Jamaica my biology textbooks were from Britain (we were still being educated to take the “O” and “A” levels out of Oxford and Cambridge), but they were designed for schools in the tropics and had to do duty in the Caribbean as well as Africa. So I remember one year we learned all about flatworms and various rather exotic intestinal parasites. I know that in biology class I expressed some miffage at the thought that we Jamaicans were being taken for the sort of people who had to worry about tapeworms.

Then, years later, I found out that in Jamaica people did get tapeworms. I found this out from my other grandmother, the one who is still alive at 96 years of age. She needed to have her stomach looked at: the doctors told her she would have to take this sort of barium cocktail and then they would put her under an anaesthetic and put this probe into her stomach. She took the barium cocktail and absolutely refused the anaesthetic. She had never been under an anaesthetic in her life and she wasn’t about to start now. “Nobody is going to interfere with this memory,” she said to me, tapping her head. “I remember everything.” And then she told me that her earliest memory was of being about a year old and being treated by her mother for a tapeworm. This is how she said her mother did it: by holding a bowl of fragrant chicken soup near my grandmother’s bottom and then grabbing the tapeworm with a piece of gauze as it stuck its head out to smell the soup. That is the story she told me of her first memory. And yes, she had the tube down her stomach without anaesthetic, too.

I don't know what you read, but I read the Edith Nesbit books, Kipling's Just So Stories, Edward Lear's poems, Robert Louis Stevenson's poems and Treasure Island, which I confess I found boring. My grandmother read me The Rime of the Ancient Mariner when I was seven and it was a reliable source of nightmares for years afterwards. She also read to me from Browning's poems, "Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came" of which I couldn't make head or tail but I was terribly impressed nonetheless by its darkness, and by its title, which I never forgot. The title was the whole poem for me, for years, till I read it again in college and found out that it had a whole lot of other stuff in it that I didn’t care about. Poetry by John Masefield, Walter de la Mare, and other late Victorians—scandalous, I know, but we did. Then there were numberless lesser works that we picked up -- books about girls at boarding schools who went on outings and somehow caught smugglers and got them arrested. The Narnia books of course, though this was before they were Christian-trendy. The Wind in the Willows, Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, and a lot of Dickens: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations (the opening of Great Expectations I found so disturbing that I didn't get past it until I was an adult, despite several attempts); if we were too young for actual Shakespeare, we certainly read Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.

You must remember that whatever was changing culturally in England, it took years for the change to reach Jamaica. And when it did reach, it was only the most independent-minded people who would embrace it first, that is, that small number of souls who were so free from the need to conform, usually because their point of cultural reference was elsewhere. The rest of us were scrupulously maintaining our difference from the Less Fortunate. Cultural change in the Caribbean has only started to speed up since about the 1970s. My grandmother was an escapee from a Victorian upbringing. Well, one of her parents was preoccupied as only a colonial can be with strict propriety and conformity, while the other was a free spirit. The two great features of her early life were her battles with her mother and, just as she was entering adulthood, the loss of her father. In adulthood, circumstances and her own temperament made her “a pioneer of divorce.” She left her husband because he cheated on her, and that put a certain amount of extra strain in her relations with respectable Jamaican society. What she carried through all these shocks was literature, a love of the written word. And for my grandmother the ground of literature, the center of it, was what I guess you could call the Victorian canon. Wherever you went with literature, you took that with you. And she had it in her head; she had taken possession of these writers, of her Shakespeare, and, of course, of the King James Bible. I once saw her in argument with some members of this kooky Christian sect in California, and it was a Battle of Quotations. For every citation they had justifying some one or other of their curious tenets, my grandmother was ready with the text, chapter and verse that had the opposing view, without the assistance of a copy of the Bible anywhere in the room. She had it in her head. And she was not a religious person at all. She had ditched that years before, though she was still talking back to it so to speak. As I have said before, our culture was steeped in the King James Bible. Half of Jamaica speaks in proverbs and people really do self-dramatize in the idiom of the Bible. So that the idiom of the earliest reading experiences that really stuck with me was distinctly Victorian; and the stories that my grandmother told me about her childhood and life after her divorce were strangely Victorian too. She was still battling a Victorian-colonial world in these stories. Strange lessons of life!

I'd like to think that early feeding on Victorian literature is what left me with such an affection for the little traces of Anglo-India that I find in books: Thackeray's Jos Sedley with his taste for inedible curries and his magnificent title "The Collector of Bogley Wallah," of course, is a great example; and Lear’s poem “The Cummerbund” is my favorite specimen.

She sate upon her Dobie,
To watch the Evening Star,
And all the Punkahs as they passed,
Cried, 'My! how fair you are!'
Around her bower, with quivering leaves,
The tall Kamsamahs grew,
And Kitmutgars in wild festoons
Hung down from Tchokis blue.


Below her home the river rolled
With soft meloobious sound,
Where golden-finned Chuprassies swam,
In myriads circling round.
Above, on talles trees remote
Green Ayahs perched alone,
And all night long the Mussak moan'd
Its melancholy tone.


And where the purple Nullahs threw
Their branches far and wide,--
And silvery Goreewallahs flew
In silence, side by side,--
The little Bheesties' twittering cry
Rose on the fragrant air,
And oft the angry Jampan howled
Deep in his hateful lair.


She sate upon her Dobie,--
She heard the Nimmak hum,--
When all at once a cry arose,--
'The Cummerbund is come!'
In vain she fled: -- with open jaws
The angry monster followed,
And so, (before assistance came,)
That Lady Fair was swallowed.


They sought in vain for even a bone
Respectfully to bury,--
They said, -- 'Hers was a dreadful fate!'
(And Echo answered 'Very.')
They nailed her Dobie to the wall,
Where last her form was seen,
And underneath they wrote these words,
In yellow, blue, and green:--

Beware, ye Fair! Ye Fair, beware!
Nor sit out late at night,--
Lest horrid Cummerbunds should come,
And swallow you outright.

…which I note from this link was first published in the Times of India in 1874.

That’s about 12 years before the publication of Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, by Henry Yule and Arthur C. Burnell. When I learned of this wonderful thing only a couple weeks ago I had to find out more. It is available as a book, and the University of Chicago has a nice one online that you can search here. And you can flip through it here. It is one of those dictionaries, as my mother said after taking a look, where you go to look for one word and half an hour later you’re still browsing.


At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the story about your grandmother and the tapeworm.

Here in Canada, I definitely grew up with a strong British influence on my early reading habits. Classics, of course, like Winnie the Pooh and Beatrix Potter when I was tiny. But then in my late elementary school years I would read every bit of Enid Blyton that I could get my hands on. It made boarding school seem so thrilling!

At 3:15 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Enid Blyton! That's who I forgot! And Winnie-the-Pooh, yes, the pre-Disney one.


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